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School & District Management Opinion

Administrators Can Make or Break School Culture. Here’s How to Spot the Best Ones

By Mary Alicia Lyons — August 08, 2018 6 min read
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Talk of school quality tends to focus on teachers—what they do to affect student achievement, how they succeed or how they fail. But district and building administrators also have an enormous influence in the education equation, a factor that is often overlooked.

Over a 25-year career, I have worked in four schools as an elementary teacher, reading specialist, and literacy coach. I have been led by 12 different principals and countless district administrators who have spanned the spectrum from fantastic to problematic.

Administrators wield enormous influence over teacher working conditions and student success. When teachers work under a poor leader, morale sinks and negativity permeates the culture of the school or district. When districts and schools are populated with positive and dynamic leaders, students are the ultimate beneficiaries. Teachers thrive and grow under great leaders, and, in turn, instruction for students is strengthened.

Over the years, I have noticed recurring characteristics of difficult and of strong administrators. I have learned to recognize the motivations and traits of those in power and, whenever possible, look for a work environment where the leaders create working conditions rooted in growing teacher capacity and a positive climate. Hopefully, this list can help other teachers call out problematic behavior when they see it and articulate the qualities they would like to see in school leadership.

(All vignettes shared in italics below are from actual experiences I have had over the course of my teaching career. In some examples, pronouns or positions have been changed.)

Four Types of Difficult Administrators

The Unrealistic, Out of Touch Administrator: This leader has forgotten what it is like to teach in a classroom. She layers in new initiatives and expectations with little regard as to how they all work together.

My principal was rolling out a program that was going to be difficult to implement due to other work underway, an issue she ignored. Frustrated teachers struggled to meet the new expectations and the program did not have the intended impact.

The “I Know Everything” Administrator: This leader thinks he has all the answers, even on topics he has little or no relevant knowledge about. He typically does not consult others and often ends up making unsound decisions.

My new principal had zero elementary-level experience. Despite his lack of relevant knowledge, he announced daily writing prompts would be administered schoolwide to improve student writing. He was unaware that our staff had recently revamped the writing program to address student needs.

The Bully Administrator: This person appears to enjoy making life difficult for staff. She targets those who are willing to speak up when her decisions are questionable or have unintended consequences. She makes judgements about staff based on rumors and the opinions of a favored few.

One principal I worked with was threatened by those with deep instructional knowledge. In return for unquestioning loyalty, she gave a few staff members all of the leadership opportunities and undue influence over schoolwide decisions. When other staff members tried to speak up, she called them in for private meetings to discuss their “transgressions” and to deliver veiled threats.

The “It’s for the Children” Administrator: This person often justifies the decisions he makes by implying or stating they are based on what is best for students. The message is sent that alternate viewpoints have little or no value, leading teachers to feel like their input is not welcomed.

The district administrator shared his new weekly paperwork requirement. It was baffling as similar records were already being kept, and this added a layer of time-consuming duplication. When asked why it was necessary, he said, “It’s for the children,” a line he often used to justify decisions that had little to do with children.

Four Qualities of High-Impact Administrators

As problematic as the above behaviors are among school leaders, the below characteristics are the ones that support teachers and create a positive school culture.

The Administrator Considers Teachers’ Opinions: The leader weighs staff input and is willing to make adjustments if something is not working.

Our principal met with teachers to discuss ways a new source of funding could be utilized. The group members shared many ideas, all of which had merit. When the principal ultimately made her decision, everyone felt like their opinions had been heard and valued in the process.

The Administrator Plans Ahead: Before implementing a new initiative, the leader considers what could present challenges. He consults with staff members that have relevant knowledge to consider angles he might not have considered.

District leaders rolled out a large initiative. My principal took a measured approach to implementation, bringing together teachers to plan for how to roll it out incrementally, in a way that built upon our current work. As a result, morale remained high among staff members and there was a high level of buy in.

The Administrator Is Empathetic: The leader understands how demanding the job of teaching can be. She is an active listener who cares about staff members at a professional as well as a personal level.

Our principal took time to listen to and ask questions of a struggling teacher. She discovered that in addition to having a challenging class, the teacher’s husband had just left her. Taking the time to understand why the teacher was faltering led to better problem solving on how to move forward.

The Administrator Develops Talent: The leader values all staff members and recognizes the strengths they bring to the table. He works to build leadership capacity and expertise across the staff.

The principal asked several teachers to take on the task of planning and presenting professional development to the staff, something they had never done before. He gave them the needed support to develop a quality presentation and, in the process, the teachers involved developed new leadership skills.

Nurturing Positive Leadership

How can schools nurture and develop leaders who have positive traits while also identifying when there are leadership situations in which things have gone awry?

A large part of the responsibility lies with the district. School systems should provide substantive and meaningful training for new administrators, including an opportunity to hear from teachers about what leadership qualities they value.

But teachers, too, have the power to shape leadership decisions. Network with teachers across the school or district to communicate how important it is that teachers be involved in decision making. Advocate for anonymous surveys of teacher working conditions, so that staff can give honest and constructive feedback without fear of repercussions. Ask that the district offer all staff members who leave the option of having a confidential exit interview, so that it is possible to uncover issues related to leadership that may not be coming to light through other avenues.

When administrators who are struggling do something positive, teachers should acknowledge the success. If administrators are open to improvement and growth, it is beneficial for them to get feedback so they know when their leadership was well received.

When there are difficult situations or conflict between administrators and staff, stand together in unity with other teachers. Too often, only a small handful of teachers are willing to speak up. It is very easy for an administrator to dismiss concerns when this happens. Teachers should harness the power in numbers.

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